If you are the type of person who would shell out the extra cash for leather upholstery, you probably also want the best car leather cleaner and conditioner to keep it looking its best. Leather car seats cost a premium, but they return that investment in the form of higher resale values. Of course, that’s only if the leather is in great condition. To keep it clean and looking fresh, invest in a quality car leather cleaner and conditioner.
A Guide to Leather Cleaners and Conditioners
Car leather is almost always top-grain cow leather, meaning it includes the outermost layer of the animal’s skin. As such, this leather has a natural grain to it that is visible on the finished product. The finest car interiors use full-grain leather in its natural form, cutting out any sections with blemishes or scarring on the skin.
Less expensive car leathers keep the blemished sections intact to save production costs. Those blemishes are then sanded or buffed out, and the leather is embossed with a faux grain. This corrected-grain leather is still usually of very high quality.
Regardless of the quality of the finished product, all leathers must go through a tanning process. By far the most common tanning method for car seat leather is chrome tanning, in which the hides are soaked in a solution of chromium sulfate. Some manufacturers use vegetable-tanned leather for secondary locations like instrument panels and steering wheels. Vegetable-tanned leather is more pliable than chrome-tanned leather, but it is not as durable.
If you are interested, this article in Car and Driver divulges the process of producing leather car interiors. And this YouTube video shows how Audi makes its leather from start to finish.
What Damages Car Leather
As it is a natural product, car leather is susceptible to damage. Some of the enemies of leather include water, ultra violet light, heat, low humidity and time. To protect the leather, manufacturers usually coat it in a thin layer of perforated vinyl. The top coat shields the leather from UV light while still allowing it to breathe.
Unfortunately, some types of leather damage are irreversible, such as water damage. In this case, water seeps into the seat between the sewn seams of the leather panels that comprise the seat. The underside of the leather is uncoated, so it absorbs the water. The resulting damage is permanent, and even the best product for cleaning leather car seats can’t help you then. Other types of damage (even small rips) may be repairable, and most of it is completely preventable. That’s where leather cleaners and conditioners come into play.
What Cleaners and Conditioners Do
Leather cleaners are liquid chemicals that liquify the dirt and grime that collects in the grain of the leather and between the seams of the panels. Once it is liquified, the dirt is easily lifted with a clean, dry cloth. Leather conditioners penetrate the surface layer of the leather, softening it and slowing the desiccation process that slowly breaks down the fibers in the leather.
How to Clean and Condition Leather Seats
Always vacuum the area to be cleaned before you begin using any cleaner or conditioner. Those little scraps of dirt and debris can scratch the vinyl coating once you begin rubbing in the conditioner. Step two is to clean the area with leather cleaner. Typically, you will apply these products liberally, then wipe off the excess. The final step is the application of conditioner. If the conditioner does not penetrate, the top coating is likely not perforated. It will break down over time, though, so try again in six months to a year.
This Chemical Guys video shows how to clean and condition leather seats.
The Best Car Leather Cleaner and Conditioner
1. Leather Honey - Best Car Leather Conditioner
Leather Honey is a small, family-owned business that does one thing and does it well. They have been making this same formula of leather conditioner for five decades. This conditioner contains no toxic chemicals and zero silicone. It is odorless, and it repels water and other liquids. Unlike many newer products on the market, Leather Honey’s results can last for six months or more. If you are the type who hates auto detailing, this may be your product.
- Contains no harsh chemicals to harm leather
- Can be used for any leather product (saddle, purse, baseball glove, etc.)
- Penetrates deeply for a long-lasting, supple finish
- Trusted product with a proven track record
- Leaves no slick surface residue or coating
- Will darken uncoated leather, though original shade will return
- Does not clean effectively, another cleaning agent is required
2. Chemical Guys - Leather Cleaner and Conditioner (Kit) - Best Car Leather Cleaner
Chemical Guys makes many different car care products. Its Leather Cleaner and Conditioner Kit comes with one bottle of cleaner and one of conditioner. The cleaner is effective, though it will require some soaking to remove stubborn stains. The conditioner requires no rubbing. You simply spray it on and leave it. It is fortified with vitamin E, which revives aging, drying leather just as it does skin. This is a simple-to-use, water-based product that is good for all types of leather goods.
- Provides a gentle-yet-effective cleaning
- Not as labor-intensive as many other products
- Water-based product not as harsh as some others
- Provides subtle leather smell
- Leaves no slippery residue
- Not the most effective cleaner available
- Leather smell may be too subtle for some
3. 303 Leather Cleaner and Conditioner - Best Car Leather Protection for the Money
The 303 brand has long been a favorite of professional car detailers. This all-in-one cleaner, conditioner and protectant is a bit newer to the market than the leather-care products that made the company famous. While it may not last as long as some of the more expensive competition, it cleans and protects leather at a fraction of the cost. If UV rays are your top concern, this may be the best car leather cleaner and conditioner for your needs.
- Most effective UV protection available
- Simple-to-use, one-step process
- Matte finish with no residue
- Repels future dirt, grime and liquids
- Prevents cracking and fading over time
- Requires reapplication every 6 weeks
- Watery and thin compared to some others
4. Chamberlain’s – Leather Milk - Best Smelling Leather Conditioner for Cars
Chamberlain’s might be laying it on a little thick with the retro packaging, but there is no denying the effectiveness of these products. The Liniment No. 1 conditioner has a creamy texture that stays in place and absorbs slowly, making messes less likely. The finish it leaves behind is as deep as they come, and the conditioner can perform light cleaning duty without the cleaner. When leather is truly filthy, the Straight Cleaner No. 2 can get the job done.
- Leaves behind that leather smell everyone is looking for
- Straight cleaner is impressively effective
- Conditioner is effective alone at light cleaning
- Strengthens leather’s interior fibers
- Leaves behind a deep, rich finish
- More expensive than most competitors
- Can leave residue that is noticeable on darker leathers
5. Lexol – Leather Care Kit - Best Car Leather Protection
This cleaner and conditioner kit from Lexol is perfect for auto leather interiors, but it is great for many other leather products as well. The cleaner has the identical PH as leather, so expect no strange reactions. The conditioner is silicone-free, so it won’t degrade the leather’s condition over time. It also leaves no oily residue, so it’s great for leather motorcycle seats as well.
- Complete kit for the cost of some conditioners alone
- Leaves behind no residue
- Can restore ignored leather to like-new condition
- One of the most effective cleaners available
- Included applicator cloths work wonderfully
- Some find the odor pungent
- Can leave a tacky film if directions not followed precisely
The car care product industry is a crowded marketplace, making it hard for any product to stand out. However, Chemical Guys has a clear winner on its hands with its Leather Cleaner and Conditioner kit. Sure, the cleaner is too gentle to erase the most stubborn stains, but when used regularly it gets the job done. The conditioner is second to none, though, and the subtle leather smell it leaves behind seems natural. Its competition is steep, but the guys at Chemical Guys have earned the title of best car leather cleaner and conditioner.